Cultural pluralism and the ethics of teaching world music 1 What by alendar


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									Cultural pluralism and the ethics of teaching world music

1. What is world music?
In the world of popular music, ‘world music’ was a commercial
construction, coined in a London pub in 1987 at a meeting of
international music industry executives who wanted to promote a
boom in African music. It rapidly became a successful marketing
label that brought together the old categories of folk and
international musics with more recent ‘roots’ and ‘fusion’ categories.
In 1990 a new Billboard chart for world music ensured this new
genre’s continued growth.

This ‘world music’ includes Western popular music stars’
collaborations with non-Western musicians and any other non-
Western or non-rock popular musics distributed (and often
produced) in the West. It also includes music ‘collected’ by
ethnomusicologists and folklorists in the past, harvested by the big
recording companies and released on CD together with
documentation guaranteeing authenticity.

The term also gained popularity as a more attractive branding of the
formidably named academic discipline of Ethnomusicology. It refers
to the discipline’s study of traditional or indigenous musics of the
world and includes some non-Western art musics. It identifies each
separate music-culture as exclusive to a particular place and group of

Helen O'Shea                     Page 1                      World Music
In Australia, the term ‘world music’ applies both to the music
circulated by the music industry and to these allegedly intact musical
traditions in their imagined faraway places studied in our schools
and universities.

During the 1980s, just as ‘world music’ recordings were becoming
popular, so was the academic field of popular music studies, from
which emerged critiques informed by new developments in cultural
theory. Musical traditions are not enclosed within fixed cultures but
are always in dialogue with the wider world. Colonial contact,
migration, urbanization, and mass communications all produce
changes in musical practices.

2. Ethical debates around ‘popular’ world music
In the discourse of world music, Steven Feld identifies two divergent

Anxious narratives derive from a view of culture as fixed. They focus
on the commodification of allegedly ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ musical
traditions, the appropriation of music from its traditional ‘owners’,
and the exploitation of their labour.

Celebratory narratives derive from a view of culture as fluid. They
point to the reappropriation of Western pop in the production of
hybrid musics that break down fixed identities to become truly global
music (implying a kind of equality) or alternatively, work towards
the creation of new political and cultural identities. From this
perspective, ‘world music means the joy of playing any kind of

Helen O'Shea                     Page 2                      World Music
music, anywhere in the world, with anyone (live or virtual)’.
Consumers imagine that so much choice implies some kind of
democracy: that every voice can be heard as every musical style
shared in this ‘best of all global communities’.

But this feel-good promotion of diversity masks the reality that this is
all about sales, and profits sales are unlikely to benefit the musicians
or their communities. So the economic exploitation of musicians has
been one concern, as has the musical tokenism that wants world
music always to be an array, a smorgasbord, with one of every
musical flavour (and ethnicity, and region) on display – for it’s the
concept of diversity that is being celebrated as much as the music

The production and circulation of world music, both in the music
industry and in the academy, reproduces a kind of primitivism in its
representations of musicians and their cultural identities as less
highly developed than our own. Value is attributed to authenticity, a
slippery notion that in world music slides towards exoticism in its
preference for allegedly intact cultural traditions, unique instruments
and sounds, geographical isolation, colourful dress and preferably
dark skin, unfamiliar languages…in sum, world music and its
cultural contexts are Other to the Western consumer.

There is also a distinct whiff of neo-colonialism in the power
differential that allows the Western record producer or consumer to
retain ‘the power and privilege to contact and know, to take away
and use’.

Helen O'Shea                     Page 3                      World Music
3. Ethical debates around ‘traditional’ musics
These insights have been taken up only partially by those who teach
world music in universities. Ethnomusicology’s mission is to
celebrate cultural pluralism by promoting understanding of the
‘musics of the world’ in opposition to the music academy’s
identification of ‘music’ with Western European art music. Ironically,
this division of musical territory institutionalises the split between
‘our’ music and ‘Other’ music. In this way, ethnomusicology is

The ethical questions that most often arise in researching, teaching
and performing ‘world music’ focus on issues of authenticity, change
and representation. Because of its emphasis on music as culture and
the importance to it of place and social meaning, ethnomusicologists
tend to focus on musical traditions that are tied to specific
geographical locations and identifiable cultural groups and kinds of
social organisation.

Implicit in these choices is an exoticism, an excitement in cultural
novelty which increases with geographical and cultural distance, as
well as a concern with authenticity in the musical culture, especially
in relation to change. There is an assumption of cultural integrity and
fear of contamination that is reminiscent of romantic nationalism’s
adoration of cultural purity in folklore and folk music.
Texts for university students generally present world music as
armchair travel or an international smorgasbord, or a mixture of
both, appealing to their desire to consume one of everything, to
experience a sonic feast, a tour of exotic locations.

Helen O'Shea                      Page 4                        World Music
4. World music in Australian schools
In Australian schools, world music is taught in both the general
primary curriculum and in secondary music classes. In the past,
schools taught multicultural music and before that, it was called folk
music. As a child in the 1960s, I learned folk songs of the British Isles
and a few from foreign places. We sang the Volga Boat Song and
learned that life in Russia was cold and dark and difficult and there
seemed to be a shortage of wind (or maybe sails) because men had to
pull the boats along with ropes. We never learned anything more
about Russia.

In the 1980s, when I played in bush bands in regional Australia,
teachers asked us to include ‘multicultural’ music and dances in our
programs. Schools and festivals hired bands that were not limited to
a single ethnicity, preferring them to be a one-stop shop for cultural
diversity. For teaching multiculturalism through music was about
celebrating diversity through fancy dress, foreign foods, exciting
dances, exotic music. Ethnicity was commodified, something that
could be consumed and reproduced as a style or flavour, in much the
same way as you might learn salsa dancing or Thai cooking. In terms
of the 9th ‘Value for Australian Schooling’ in the moral education
framework, this approach taught students ‘to be aware of others and
their cultures’ and to ‘accept diversity within a democratic society’
but not the more important goal, of ‘being included and including

Helen O'Shea                      Page 5                      World Music
In teaching cultural diversity, the pluralism of our world is
represented by Others who are distant geographically and whose
cultural differences are emphasised. Would a child from one of these
multicultural backgrounds feel included, ‘feel special about their
culture’? This is the claim of a local producer of world music texts,
yet it is even more unlikely to be justified than in the heyday of
multiculturalism. For the aim today is not to teach cultural pluralism
through music, but to teach music using the diverse musical
traditions that have come to represent that ideal. So teachers dissect
‘world music’, in ways quite alien to these music systems, isolating
rhythms or pitch changes, for example, to achieve the ‘learning
outcomes’ determined by Western music educationists, whose
default musical system and analytical method is that of European art

In using world music to teach cultural pluralism or simply to teach
music, the centre of knowledge, the location of authority and the
power to represent are all in an assumed ‘neutral’ position that is
actually that of Western high culture.

Helen O'Shea                     Page 6                      World Music
5. Alternative approaches
This list suggests that if you record, consume, perform or teach world
music, you will go straight to hell. Music educationists who want to
avoid this fate advocate that:
- we teach more cultural context
(but curriculum does not allow time for this)
- teachers should be sincere, caring and sensitive in representing
others (but good intentions can’t counter the kinds of
misrepresentation I have identified)
- we train student teachers in ethnomusicology fieldwork methods
(this will bring them but not their pupils closer to source musicians)
- we adopt texts that use recordings and websites to allow a real
musician to introduce the music and culture of their home place
virtual community (but why not simply)
- use local musicians to create communities of practice in schools?

For today’s students, ‘music’ is what they listen to on their mp3
players or through other media. It’s a commodity that’s produced
elsewhere and for them it’s about individual consumption and
individual choice. In raising these issues and sketching the debates as
they apply to music education, I want to insist that music is a
modality through which we all live: through which we perceive and
communicate with the world through our bodies, our imaginations,
and our emotions. We all have the capacity to do this actively rather
than solely as consumers and for this reason, I advocate that real
musicians, wherever they were born and whatever their musical
genre, become the respected resource from which our students learn.

Helen O'Shea                     Page 7                     World Music
Steven Feld (2001) ‘A sweet lullaby for world music’ in Arjun
Appadurai (ed.) Globalization. Durham, CT and London: Duke
University Press.

Helen O'Shea                   Page 8                     World Music

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